Colombia: Chiquita cases open window into para arms pipeline

On Dec. 10, Chiquita Brands filed a motion to dismiss in a case brought by 144 survivors of Colombian paramilitary victims in federal district court in Washington DC. The case, first filed in June under the Alien Tort Statue, holds the company responsible in the reign of terror by the United Colombian Self-Defense Forces (AUC), a State Department-listed terrorist group that Chiquita has admitted to underwriting. Attorney Paul Wolf, who filed the case with Terry Collingsworth of the International Labor Rights Fund, has opened an office in the town of Apartadó, in Colombia’s northern banana-growing region of Urabá, to continue to gather evidence in the case. Writes Wolf in an e-mail update: “If we survive the Motion to Dismiss, there’s little doubt the case will be before a jury, and if that happens, there’s little doubt we’ll win. The estimated 800-1,000 cases we have now are just too gruesome, involving machete massacres, beheadings, numerous children, and entire communities that were virtually eliminated.”

The motion to dismiss states that “plaintiffs here fail to demonstrate any connection whatsoever between the alleged paramilitary murders and any armed conflict.” It also calls “false and incendiary” the allegation that Chiquita is responsible for the arms smuggled through the company-owned port of Turbo.

“This is a landmark case, maybe the biggest terrorism case in history,” said attorney Collingsworth when the case was first filed. “In terms of casualties, it’s the size of three World Trade Center attacks…. Putting Chiquita on trial for hundreds, or even thousands of murders could put them out of business. In the last 10 years, more than 10,000 people have been murdered by the AUC, many of them in the banana zones where Chiquita financed the AUC’s operations. I guess this is the one scenario where I would support the death penalty – the death of a truly evil corporation.”

Responded Mike Mitchell, spokesman for Chiquita: “The company was forced to make payments to both left and right-wing paramilitary organizations to protect the lives of our employees. It is absolutely untrue for anyone to suggest the payments were made for any other purpose.” (AlJazeera, June 8; BBC, June 7, 2007)

Meanwhile, a second such lawsuit was filed in Manhattan district court in November, seeking $7.8 billion in damages on behalf of 393 AUC terror survivors. “This lawsuit is about compensating the victims and the families for these atrocities,” said attorney Jonathan Reiter. The suit seeks “damages for terrorism, war crimes, crimes against humanity extrajudicial killing, torture and wrongful death.” Reiter charged collaboration with the AUC was central to Chiquita’s strategy is Urabá. “It was about acquiring every aspect of banana distribution and sale through a reign of terror,” told reporters in New York. (AFP, Reuters, Nov. 14)

In a third case, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) filed a shareholder lawsuit against several present and former officers and directors at Chiquita Brands who were involved in the illegal transfer of funds to paramilitary groups. The case was filed in Ohio state court in Hamilton County, home of the company’s US headquarters. The union is a major Chiquita shareholder. SEIU president Andy Stern said: “It is unacceptable for a corporation to turn a blind eye to widespread international labor and other human rights abuses in the name of ‘serving’ shareholders well. A fundamental shift is needed in the way business is done; the end game cannot be turning the highest profit at any cost.” (SEIU press release, Sept. 13, via EarthTimes)

Reporter Phillip Robertson, writing in the Fall issue of Virginia Quarterly Review, explores the anatomy of the AUC-Chiquita arms pipeline:

In 1997, shortly after the AUC arrived in Urabá, it began to consolidate power through a series of massacres and assassinations intended to drive out the FARC, which had organized in the banana fields. Swept up in the paramilitary net were civilians who had no connection to any armed groups. A large number of villagers and workers were summarily executed after being tortured or fingered as sympathetic to the FARC. Many of the killings took place around river towns. AUC gunmen would arrive, assemble the villagers in a central place and begin to interrogate them. Often, they were killed regardless of their answers. Establishing guilt in this system is just a pretext for widespread murder. It was a tremendous success. Eventually, the AUC controlled the entire banana-growing region of Urabá, any leftist agitators were in hiding, and the AUC had access to the Chiquita port. They controlled it, but the commanders were still engaged in a brutal fight for control of the banana and coca fields. They faced a serious logistics problem. The paramilitary group was winning, but it badly needed war material to expand its influence.

On November 5, 2001, four years after the AUC arrived in Urabá, a mysterious shipment of thousands of AK-47 assault rifles and millions of rounds of ammunition arrived at the Chiquita docks, a lethal cargo that went directly to the AUC commanders. Aside from an Organization of American States (OAS) report that focused on the two Israeli arms dealers who arranged the deal from Guatemala and Panama, there have been few details to emerge about how the weapons were handled on the Colombian side. It is also true that people directly associated with the shipment have had a tendency to disappear. The Mexican captain of the Otterloo, Jesús Iturrios Maciél, sailed with the ship on November 9 to Barranquilla and then vanished. The shipping company that owned the Otterloo closed its offices in Panama a few days after news of the weapons broke in a Colombian newspaper. The information in the OAS report suggests that someone formed the company just to deliver the weapons to the AUC.

See our last posts on Colombia, paramilitary terror and the Chiquita scandal.